It’s funny how you can read a passage of Scripture a dozen times, two dozen times, a hundred times, and never see something in that text until you read it with a specific question in mind. I have been working on a series of lessons on Christ, culture, and faith, and as a part of that study have been looking at Romans 1-5 (in particular) and, almost by necessity, incorporating the teaching of James. Although I have read James countless times, for once one little word jumped out at me as if it was stoked on performance enhancing drugs. More on that in a moment.
If you read virtually anything written by a card-carrying, approved member of the evangelical intelligentsia you will read, again and again, that we Christians are saved by “grace alone through faith alone.” It is a mantra repeated ad nauseam. It’s most quoted champion is the reformer Luther. However, you do not have to be a Lutheran to promote that line of thought. We humans cannot do anything to save ourselves, to think so would be to preach “works salvation,” so therefore we are saved by grace alone through faith alone.
The only problem, and it is a whopper, is that no one, not one single New Testament writer, wrote or said such a thing.
Now, there is no question that the apostle Paul said we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8), a point that was tragically overlooked for decades by many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But – and I make this point emphatically – the word alone never appears in Paul’s writings in relation to saving faith. Once again, no reader of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, or any other of Paul’s books for that matter, can come to any other conclusion other than the fact we are saved by God’s grace through faith.
Which brings me to the book of James.
Theologians have wrestled with the relationship of the teachings of Paul to James for centuries. The problem boils down to one fairly small section of James’s letter – James 2:14-26. In those brief paragraphs James excoriates the idea that mere acceptance of a doctrine or set of doctrines can constitute “faith.” And, tucked right in the middle of that section of his letter James writes this:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
In one amazing little sentence James totally contradicts the Lutheran/Protestant mantra. We are not saved by faith alone. Not. Read it again – not! If you are waiting for me to untangle the relationship between Paul and James you are going to have to wait a while, and probably attend about 13 weeks of classes. The point I want to make here is that James did write something that contradicts what so many think that Paul wrote – and Paul never wrote what they believe he must have. (If that sentence is confusing to you, you should see how confusing it is to me.)
The statement is so stark that Luther – and I should say a great many modern evangelicals – simply cannot justify (pardon the pun) James with Paul, and since Paul is regarded as being clearly superior – and spiritual – they simply reject James. As in, cut James out of the canon. As in, James is not inspired, so we have to listen to Paul and not James. As in, we are just so much smarter than 1,600 or 1,700 or even 1,800 years of Christian theology, so we can pick and choose which texts we are going to follow and which we are going to excise from the Bible.
This, to me, is simply staggering. Paul never says something and what he does not say becomes a part of “Christian” doctrine so rabidly promoted that to question it amounts to heresy, and James does say something so clear and unambiguous, and it is for all intents and purposes, simply cut out of the New Testament.
I can only think of three reasons why scholars, pastors, and Christian authors promote Luther to the utter and total exclusion of James 2:24. One, they do not know Greek, and so do not have access to verifying whether Paul did or did not use the word alone. Two, they do know Greek, but have simply swallowed the Lutheran doctrine to the point that they have no reason (in their mind) to verify whether Paul used the word alone or not. Those two reasons are sad, and are in reality without excuse (as a good English translation and concordance would reveal the same truth), but it is the third reason that I think is so tragic, and indefensible. The third reason is that they are aware that Paul never uses the word alone in relation to saving faith, but they are so beholden to defend the dogma of Lutheran/Protestant thinking that they willingly repeat the falsehood. In their mind Luther is so correct that Paul must have meant alone, even though he did not use the word, that they say “. . . through faith alone” again and again and again.
All of this just goes to illustrate why we need to be so careful – painstakingly so – in our writing. Speech is one thing; we can be forgiven for a little hyperbole here and a little sermonizing there (so long as what we say or sermonize is not certifiably false!). But when we write, when we put words on paper (or pixels on a blog) we must be so minutely careful that what we say is correct. Or, in the absence of that, that we go back and correct any false statements that we make.
I have no doubt that Luther’s intentions were utterly innocent. He was writing (and preaching) to confront ecclesiastical dogma that held people in complete terror. Hell awaited the slightest sin, and works of penance were beyond the ability of the average Christian; therefore the payment of indulgences became a source of comfort for the ignorant and a formidable source of income for the church. Luther was absolutely correct to bring “salvation by grace through faith” back into the Christian teaching. Where he erred was in adding one little word – alone.
May we be so careful, so diligent, to preach the New Testament fearlessly and honestly. But, let us be so careful, so diligent that we never add anything to the teaching of the inspired authors!